Creeping Along

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Looking Down from Masada 

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Recently, in an email from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery with whom Mary Lee and I are affiliated, I read,

The true pilgrim who has found the way says in his thankful heart, “I will run when I can, when I cannot run I will go, and when I cannot go, I will creep.” George Congreve, SSJE (1835-1918).

Shivers snaked down my bent spine. Just a few nights earlier, I had dreamed that I was crawling up the side of a highway in the breakdown lane, traffic whizzing by me to my left, and a drop-off of several thousand feet to my right. Petrified with fear, I inched my way upward. Creeping, if you will.

I have a friend who believes that coincidences are how God speaks to us. I’m not sure about that, but I have read a bit about psychologist Carl Jung’s theory that dreams work to integrate our subconscious and conscious lives, help to heal us, revealing, if not the Holy, at least what it means to be more whole.

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Mandala by Carl Jung. Jung believed that creating mandalas offers a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.”

Back in 1997 Mary Lee and I visited the ancient fortress of Masada situated on a tabletop plateau some 1300 feet above the Dead Sea in southern Israel’s Judean Desert. It’s a kind of holy site—at least to the Israeli army—because during the first Jewish-Roman war from 73-74 CE, Roman troops lay siege to the fort, which ended a year later when 960 Jewish troops committed suicide. The sides of the plateau are almost shear. (It took a year for the Romans to construct a ramp up to the fortress.) We took a cable car almost to the top, which, for someone like me who’s terrified by heights, was bad enough, but notice I said almost to the top. When you exit the cable car, you still have to walk to the top up some narrow steps hugging the side of the mountain. (Just thinking back on them makes my legs shake.)

No way could I walk up them. So I crawled. Two hours later, I returned to the cable car the same way, except I crept down backwards. I didn’t care how long it took or what the hell I looked like.

And for me, who’s spent much of his life concerned with how other people see me, that shows just how afraid I was. Like a lot of people, I was raised to think that creeping and crawling are to be avoided. Only insects, snakes (remember that in the Bible the serpent didn’t slither until God cursed him), and cowards crawl. The only ones who creep are, well, creeps, a word which originally referred to someone you couldn’t trust, a sneak.

But I recalled that in my dream, as I crawled I was totally focused, determined. Scared as hell, but resolved to get to my destination. Which reminded me of reading from the journals of the writer John Cheever (and I can’t find the passage, so you’ll have to take my word for it), that just days before he died of kidney cancer, he crawled up the stairs to his office so he could do his daily writing. And of hearing that the singer Johnny Cash, who not long before he died of respiratory failure brought on by diabetes, cut a track for a song where the engineer had to stop the recording at the end of each line until the singer could get his breath.

I’m sure this is what Brother George Congreve, SSJE, was talking about: persistently following your path, your “way,” at whatever speed you can, even if you’re dying, or as in my dream, you’re in the breakdown lane with cars whizzing by you.

But you don’t need to be dying to take advantage of creeping. I’ve written several times in these blogs about how upset I got when I was hiking and when someone would pass me, especially if that someone looked older than I was. Eventually, however, I discovered that I could actually cover more miles if I slowed down and paced myself, instead of walking as fast as I could, wearing myself out, and needing to stop and rest. I was also less inclined to pull a muscle or strain a tendon. Most important, If I wasn’t pushing myself—head down, body aching—I saw more and enjoyed more of what I saw.

These days, I’m going even slower, working on taking my walks one step at a time, just focusing on the next step. And the next… the next … the next…  It’s a good exercise in living in the moment, which is not only how I’m trying to walk, but how I’m trying to live in these days of Corona Crud. I have no idea when all the restrictions will be lifted, I have no idea who will win the Presidential election or if the result will make any difference. But I can creep along, take one step at a time, and enjoy the view, whether of a stand of pine trees or one of my grandchildren standing on a rock by the ocean.

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Grandson John, complete with mask

Now, in my dream, my destination as I crawled up the side of that highway was a big black motorcycle. What I found waiting for me, however, were two pink and white tricycles.

What the hell was going on there? I’ve never wanted a motorcycle; I think I’ve been on one once in my life. But when I was growing up, motorcycles were what rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones rode—real men who smoked Marlboro cigarettes, and thumbed their noses at conventionality. I think I’ve always associated motorcycles with freedom, independence: values I’ve cherished, especially in my younger days.

On the other hand, tricycles are what my grandchildren have just given up for their first bicycles. Reminding me that I’ve also always thought of creeping and crawling as what babies do. These actions are among our first movements, and most of what I’ve read says creeping and crawling are good for babies. Pediatricians tell us that crawling helps develop and enhance balance, vision, and spatial awareness. I guess crawling also helps connect both sides of the brain.

So perhaps my needs these days have less to do with being independent than with being more whole, enjoying what time I have left in as many ways as possible. And the fact that there were two tricycles in my dream makes me wonder if part of being more whole involves recognizing my need for other people, something I’ve been thinking a lot about in these days of enforced isolation.

Not to mention how intense, even angry, people look on their motorcycles, and how much babies seem to enjoy creeping along.

Boy, would I like to have some of that joy these days.

And maybe that’s what I can learn from my, excuse the expression, “creepy dream.” That in the midst of the fear, whether it’s the fear of being run over by whizzing traffic or of falling off the side of a mountain, creeping along, even as my body breaks down, focusing on just the next movement, can lead not to some macho feeling of “being free,” but to the childhood joy of  simply being.

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About ready to give these away.

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A Few Thoughts on Nostalgia

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“Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happened to you.”

—Aldous Huxley

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Like many of us geriatrics, I get a lot of email or Facebook posts that draw me back to my youth: photos of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, cars with fins, unfiltered Camel cigarettes… Or lists of phrases: “Don’t touch that dial,” “Carbon copy,” “You sound like a broken record”; hairstyles: beehives, pageboys and the D.A.; clothing: rolled tee-shirts and jeans, thin neckties, fedoras, poodle skirts, saddle shoes and pedal pushers. I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories of my old hometown. Posts begin: “Does anyone remember (insert teacher or local character, restaurant or dance hall), to which anywhere from 5 to 50 people will share reminiscences.

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All of which often evoke in me the emotion psychologists call “nostalgia,” usually defined as the warm feeling we have when we recall fond memories from our pasts. (The word comes from the Latin, meaning “a return home.”)

As with most of my emotions, nostalgia can help me or hinder me, depending on how I handle it.

Nostalgia is a common emotion. According to an online article in the Huffington Post, the average person engages in some kind of nostalgia once a week. People tend to become more nostalgic, the article continues, not only as, like me, they age, but also during times of transition, when one way of life is ending and the next hasn’t begun. I can see that. I used to teach high school seniors and invariably, during the last weeks of May, as their high school years were ending, I would hear them reminiscing, not as I had expected, about their high school years, but about their elementary and middle school years. They often talked about eighth grade, which, again, is a transition year for many students.

So, I wonder if nostalgia isn’t a form of grieving, sort of like the way people talk about someone at their funeral. Both nostalgia and grief show love, keep us connected, not only with the person or place we’ve lost, but with each other. And that’s healthy.

Nostalgia, however, can also be a form of resentment. Something, we feel, is wrong in our lives so we long for the days when whatever that something wrong is simply wasn’t there. This can lead to a nostalgia looks back to a particular time as some golden age, when, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.” In Bill Bryson’s book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he notes that in a survey, Americans picked 1957 as the best time in history to be alive, ignoring the fear that swept this country when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, or the racial unrest that resulted in President Eisenhower’s ordering federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, or the air raid drills as schools “prepared” for the nuclear attack we kids thought could happen at any time. If you were black, gay, or even female, I can think of far better times to be alive than 1957.

Like today, for example.

I find what I call Golden Age Nostalgia irritating, I think because for years, I saw my 1950’s childhood the same way, filled with the smells of home baked bread and the sounds of laughter. Then, after a divorce and struggles to overcome the emotional effects of the death of my daughter led me to several 12-step programs, I started to see how much of my childhood I had repressed, even denied, which led me to repress or deny any kind of nostalgia.

Lately, though, having gained insights into why shame has been the driving force in my life, why I react as I do to confrontation, authority, and strong women, I can also see that as a child I was loved, I was protected, and I was more often than not happy. And It’s okay to feel nostalgic for those times.

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Actually, it’s better than okay. I’m coming to see that nostalgia—usually thought of as being concerned with the past—can provide strength for the future. Nostalgia for my childhood gives me hope that not only my grandchildren, but all the children of this country will overcome this turbulent time’s challenges. While I’m certainly not nostalgic about my daughter’s death, the warm memories I have of her eighteen years of life—her compassion, her creativity, her joy—continue to inspire me. And if I can live happily for the most part after her death, I can live for the most part happily in this time of turmoil and uncertainty. If I can face her death, I can face my own.

Shut up at home, aging, I find myself growing more nostalgic about my past pilgrimages. This, too, I think is helpful. One of the main reasons—perhaps the main reason—for making a pilgrimage is to return home with new awareness and then share it. As Phillip Cousineau, whom I’ve been quoting now for almost five years in this blog, writes, “…you must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.” And for me, that includes reminding myself what I’ve learned on my pilgrimages about living in liminal space, asking for help, facing the unknown, adapting to the situation, and living in the moment.

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But I still need to be careful, especially during these days of Coronic uncertainty. My temptation—and I’m not alone; I hear it a lot—is to want things to get back to “normal.” Everything I know about history tells me that this isn’t going to happen. No matter what transpires with this disease or other “dis-eases” such as climate change, violations of human rights, and gun violence, there will be no return to “normal,” as we once knew it. And nostalgia won’t change that. All it can do is make us angry and resentful.

Or it can help us change.

The key for me, as one of my 12-step daily readings puts it, is to be able “to look back without staring.” Going back, for example, to 1957 to enjoy a time when, if the times weren’t actually better, I was young and healthy and full of plans for the future—to be able to look at that, take what I can, and leave the rest behind along with tailfins and DA haircuts, violence and bigotry.

Those are “normals” I can live without.

Cadillac1001

 

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